Birding in Chobe Nationalpark/ Botswana

Afrikanischer ScherenschnabelIn the first morning light a mokoro-boat splits the shallow waves of the early river. Silence lies over the wide river plain in the morning haze. The birding specials in the area around the Chobe River in the north of Botswana, characterized by flood plains, grasslands and riparian woods along the river courses, are real treats for avid birders. The bird list is characterized by many species that love the proximity to the water. These include White-backed Night Heron (Gorsachius leuconotus), Slaty Egret (Egretta vinaceigula), African Darter (Anhinga rufa), African Marsh Harrier (Circus ranivorus), African Finfoot (Podica senegalensis), Pel’s Fishing Owl (Scotopelia peli), Half-collared Kingfisher (Alcedo semitorquata), Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima) and – last not least – the African Skimmer (Rynchops flavirostris).  But also other beautiful and/ or rare birds like White-fronted Bee-eater (Merops bullockoides), Red-necked Falcon (Falco chicquera), Meyer’s Parrot (Poicephalus meyeri), Swamp Boubou (Laniarius bicolor), Holub’s Golden Weaver (Ploceus xanthops) and Brown Firefinch (Lagonosticta nitidula). Regular guests from the western Palearctic from October on are Great Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) and Thrush Nightingales (Luscinia luscinia).

When we’ve left the river bend behind the lodge for a while, a flock starts moving with a heavy, powerful wing beat. Perched low on a sandbank were standing dozens of black and white colored birds with a strikingly long red bill. These are the long-awaited African Skimmer. First, the flock turns a round over the resting sandbar. Then the flock descends into low altitude flight. The black-and-white-colored, roughly tern-sized birds with their long, elegant wings fly a few centimeters above calm water, hovers prey-hunting parallel to the water surface – as you might want to see from the Skimmers at River Sanaga in Cameroon. Suddenly they pull out their oversized, laterally flattened and sharp-edged lower beak and pull it, flattening its wings, through the upper layers of water. They fly until their beaks come into contact with a fish. Shortly thereafter, it closes his beak abruptly, and a small silver fish disappears wriggling in the throat of the successful hunters.

The beaks of the Skimmers have over thirty special adaptations to the hunting technique in the skull and neck area – such as horn-like extensions on the cartilage of the lower jaw and large attachment sites for musculature on the jaw and cervical vertebrae.

A good starting point for birding in Chobe is Kasane in northern Botswana. This small town lives mainly from the stream of safari tourists. We had decided on the Mowana Lodge at home. Once there, we were able to photograph the first Village Weavers (Ploceus cucullatus) at the nest building. In the afternoon the first boat tour started on the Chobe. Right on our first boat trip, elephants (Loxodonta africanus) swimming 10 to 20 meters away from us, swimming and diving the river Chobe. The proboscis were used like snorkels, not always photogenic, but an experience. The bird life allowed us to get very close by boat, sometimes up to 2 meters. Bee-eaters have been so close at one time or another that the lens could not focus on them even at the minimum distance setting. Again and again you can see the White-fronted Bee-eater (Merops bullockoides). From the boat you can approach the birds of the park so far that format-filling shots succeed. Herons and Skimmers were better photographed from the boat than from the car as well. The hippos – the Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) – however, were much scarier. When they were accompanied by their youngs, they quickly disappeared again under the water. Antelopes accepted our presence on the boat rather than in the car. The next day started with a morning stalk in the car. At the end of August Kasane is still fresh in the morning. In the open Land Cruiser, you should dress appropriately in the morning, because without windproof clothing, the 8 kilometers to the entrance of the National Park are quite long. You’re freezing to the bone.

Once in the park, the first antelopes quickly appear. The Elephants have still retreated far into the national park. Only later at 9:00 a.m., the first herds appear on the scene when they pull in to drink in the Chobe River. In the park there are also lion packs. After the first two excursions with off-road vehicle and boat, it was clear to us that we would spend the rest of the days predominantly by boat. Usually between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. our tour began. Arrived in the right places, then everything goes pretty fast. On the one hand elephants come to the river and on the other hand the first Hippos go ashore. When choosing the right mean for the river caution is required. The most offered boats are indeed fast, agile and provide enough storage space. But often you cannot drive the channels because of the low water level. We chose a mokoro. A mokoro is a dugout boat about four meters long which is common on the rivers in the north of Namibia and Botswana i.e. is in use on the Okavango. The flat boats, which are generally intended for fishing and small groups, have been found to be excellent for taking pictures. If the leader with the flat bow went ashore, you can even use a tripod. This is ideal especially for long focal lengths. Such opportunities rarely arise when touring with a group. Just as little “group fit” were our flexible start times. Groups usually start on fixed dates. Then you see swarming of big and small boats and you have trouble picking up pictures of the river landscape without boats in the background.

Both August and September are still a good travel time compromise. It is not that hot yet and the bush is so dry at the end of the dry season that many animals are tied to the river.

The large Chobe National Park in northern Botswana was founded in 1967 and 1987 expanded to its present size of approximately 11,000 km². It is considered one of the most species-rich and most scenic protected areas in southern Africa. The landscape alternates between vast savanna areas, alluvial forest and scrublands near the riverbanks. This region is famous for the largest elephant population in Africa. In the dry season, the Chobe elephants pull up to 200 kilometers from the dry pans in the southeast of the park, where they are found in the rainy season, to the rivers Chobe and Linyanti. Here you will find the best places to watch and take photos. There are also many hippos in the water channels of the river. Herds of African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and Pukus (Kobus vardonii) are abundant. The area around the Chobe between Kasane and Ngoma Bridge is very well developed for tourists. Although this is not always an advantage for photographers, it does offer the option of choosing between different types of accommodation or safari offers, depending on your wallet.

Other interesting areas of the national park include the Savute, an open savannah landscape with camel thorn and mopane trees. Animals can be seen grazing in the savanna during cooler mornings or afternoons. Lions (Panthera leo), Southern Giraffe (Giraffa giraffa), Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) and antelopes can be seen throughout the year. In the Linyanti marshes in the northwestern part of the park on the border with Namibia, you can find the animals along the river and at the edge of the swamps. The fourth area of ​​the national park is Nagotsaa. If the waterholes in this part of the park are filled, there are hardly any places in Botswana where it is better to spot animals.

The most suitable places for wildlife photography in Africa are usually near the lodges. There you will also find the connoisseurs of the region. In particular, the employees employed by the lodges usually know the whereabouts of the animals very closely. For individual safaris it is advisable to book accommodation with corresponding offers directly on site. Not all lodges allow individual safaris in the car or boat to the exclusion of other tourists. In search of this opportunity, we came across the Mowana Lodge, now known as the Cresta Mowana Safari Resort, which seemed a little daunting at first because of its size. Overlooking the Chobe River, this upscale safari resort has a thatched roof and is 8 km from Chobe National Park and Kasane Airfield. However, the resort was very well suited to our special wishes.

Botswana is a costly safari country. Several lodges offer expensive lodgings and only moderate safari services from a photographic point of view. Although there is also the cheaper way to camp, but this is usually only granted to those who can invest a lot of time. If you want or have to do a lot in the short term, you should work with one of the leading safari companies on site. There are innumerable safaris on the Internet that can be put together according to the modular principle. But there is also enough room for individual arrangements.

Chobe is a great park for bird watching throughout the year, but the best months are from November to April. This is when migrants swoop into the park. Also, during these months a lot of birds are breeding, and large colonies of waterbirds can be found nesting on the sandbanks in the river. The best time for mammals, however, is in the dry months from May to October.

To cope with the growing demand for top shots of the rarer species of the Palearctic Bird-Lens is keen to enrich the range of pictures of birds not only in the western palearctic.  Trips to remote places like this one to capture images were very successful. The nice image of the blog is only a first impression, what you will find in the gallery in the “Picture Shop” very soon. Just give me a message, if could serve you with an image needed before the new pictures are online.

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